Sunday, April 26, 2009

Considered Forthwith: House Judiciary Committee

Welcome to the fifth installment of "Considered Forthwith."

This weekly series looks at the various committees in the House and the Senate. Committees are the workshops of our democracy. This is where bills are considered, revised, and occasionally advance for consideration by the House and Senate. Most committees also have the authority to exercise oversight of related executive branch agencies. If you want to read previous dairies in the series, search using the "forthwith" tag or use the link on my blogroll. I welcome criticisms and corrections in the comments.

This week, we will look at the House Judiciary Committee. Next week, this series will look at the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committees have similar jurisdiction, but they are different enough to Justify a separate entry.

First, here's the members of the committee.

John Conyers, Chairman, Michigan; Howard Berman, California; Rick Boucher, Virginia; Jerrold Nadler, New York; Robert C. Scott, Virginia; Mel Watt, North Carolina; Zoe Lofgren, California; Sheila Jackson-Lee, Texas; Maxine Waters, California; Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts; Robert Wexler, Florida; Steve Cohen, Tennessee; Hank Johnson, Georgia; Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico; Luis Gutierrez, Illinois; Brad Sherman, California; Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin; Charles Gonzalez, Texas; Anthony Weiner, New York; Adam Schiff, California; Linda Sánchez, California; Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Florida; Dan Maffei, New York

Lamar S. Smith, Ranking Member, Texas; Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin; Howard Coble, North Carolina; Elton Gallegly, California; Bob Goodlatte, Virginia; Dan Lungren, California; Darrell Issa, California; Randy Forbes, Virginia; Steve King, Iowa; Trent Franks, Arizona; Louie Gohmert, Texas; Jim Jordan, Ohio; Ted Poe, Texas; Jason Chaffetz, Utah; Tom Rooney, Florida; Gregg Harper, Mississippi

The House Judiciary Committee has an extensive jurisdiction and encompasses everything from the routine like law enforcement to things that just don't come up often like state and territorial boundaries. Just a few examples of subjects under the purview of the committee are national drug policy, wiretapping, copyrights and patents, civil rights, ethics in government, judicial procedure, and immigration law.

The committee is also potentially one of the most powerful. When rare things come up like presidential impeachments, admission of new states, treason, and constitutional amendments come up, the committee's actions are historic by definition.

Here's the full outline of the committee's jurisdiction:

1. The judiciary and judicial proceedings, civil and criminal.
2. Administrative practice and procedure.
3. Apportionment of Representatives.
4. Bankruptcy, mutiny, espionage, and counterfeiting.
5. Civil liberties.
6. Constitutional amendments.
7. Criminal law enforcement.
8. Federal courts and judges, and local courts in the Territories and possessions.
9. Immigration policy and non-border enforcement.
10. Interstate compacts generally.
11. Claims against the United States.
12. Members of Congress, attendance of members, Delegates, and the Resident Commissioner; and their acceptance of incompatible offices.
13. National penitentiaries.
14. Patents, the Patent and Trademark Office, copyrights, and trademarks.
15. Presidential succession.
16. Protection of trade and commerce against unlawful restraints and monopolies.
17. Revision and codification of the Statutes of the United States.
18. State and territorial boundary lines.
19. Subversive activities affecting the internal security of the United States.

In fact, any bill that contains civil or criminal penalties can be referred to the judiciary committee. Essentially, the committee would be considering whether or not the penalty is appropriate for the crime. This is another example of the possibility of multiple referral. The Speaker (or more accurately, a parliamentarian in consultation with the Speaker) can refer a single bill to multiple committees. A hypothetical bill that would levy a fine of $25,000 for spreading fertilizer on Sunday would likely go to the Agriculture Committee for consideration of the actual practice and to Judiciary to consider the penalty.

The result of such a referral, should it make it out of committee would be a mark-up (also known as the chairman's mark) which makes changes to the original text of the bill as well as a committee report explaining the law in plain language.

A few historical highlights

The House Judiciary Committee is one of the oldest standing committees. It was formed June 3, 1813 to consider bills related to judicial procedure in the fledgling judicial branch. Over the decades, the committee has been involved in the laws that restructured the federal court system. The history of the court system is available from the Federal Judiciary Center.

The committee has been involved in drafting all of the Constitutional Amendments since the 13th, which abolished slavery. This includes not only the handful that have actually been approved, but also the ones that have failed such as the Equal Rights Amendment.

The committee also has jurisdiction over presidential impeachments from the House side. The House brings charges of impeachment and it is the judiciary committee that actually writes the charges. This was the case in the impeachment of Bill Clinton and near impeachment of Richard Nixon. In contrast, a specially appointed committee drafted the articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson. This is important because the Senate must try an impeached president under the articles drafted by the House Judiciary Committee and approved by the full House.

Current investigations

We have been screaming for investigations into torture ("enhanced interrogation techniques" to Republicans and the media). The House Judiciary Committee is taking the lead on the investigation and we can expect hearings very soon. From the committee on April 21:

The Office of Professional Responsibility will soon complete a report concerning the former Justice Department lawyers who wrote these memos. The Judiciary Committee will subsequently hold hearings and investigate these matters. If the OPR report is delayed further, we will have hearings in the near term in any event. Critical questions remain concerning how these memos came into existence and were approved, which our committee is uniquely situated to consider.

There are no reports on the torture memos posted by the Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) yet, but presumably the office does not post such information until the conclusion of an investigation. This is fairly standard. These are very serious allegations and the office would not want to make premature public statements on such an investigation. Read more about OPR's process here.

Looking a little bit deeper, the OPR is a part of the Department of Justice. They are responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct among the department's attorneys. OPR answers directly to the Attorney General. One of OPR's recent investigations (PDF link) which was conducted with the department's Office of the Inspector General, looked into politicization within the department. This report specifically concluded that Bradley S. Schlozman, a former senior official, did indeed make hiring and firing decisions based on ideology. The report recommends he be prosecuted and be declared unfit for future federal service. This issue is the focus of another investigation by the committee.

The committee has a host of other issues under investigation right now. These issues range from a nearly 500 page report on "The Imperial Presidency" to a report on NFL player injuries. A listing of the current investigations and major legislation is available here.

These investigations highlight the importance of control of Congress. It is doubtful that the committee (or any committee) would investigate these matters if the Republicans controlled the House. Without an investigation, there can be no subsequent repercussions for those involved in wrong-doing.


The full committee retains jurisdiction over the following topics:

(C)opyright, patent and trademark law, information technology, tort liability, including medical malpractice and product liability, legal reform generally, and such other matters as determined by the chairman.

There are five standing subcommittees. The chair and ranking member are non-voting ex-officio members of every subcommittee. In addition to their stated jurisdiction, the committee chair may refer other appropriate matter to the subcommittees.

Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy
The subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

antitrust law, monopolies, and restraints of trade, administration of U.S. courts, Federal Rules of Evidence, Civil and Appellate Procedure, judicial ethics.

Hank Johnson of Georgia is the chairman and Howard Coble of North Carolina is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

constitutional amendments, constitutional rights, federal civil rights, ethics in government,

Jerrold Nadler of New York is the chair and F. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is the ranking member.

The Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

bankruptcy and commercial law, bankruptcy judgeships, administrative law, independent counsel, state taxation affecting interstate commerce, interstate compacts,

The chair is Steve Cohen of Tennessee and the ranking member is Trenk Franks of Arizona. (Note: for an example of gerrymandering in action, check out the map of Rep. Franks' district.)

The Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

Federal Criminal Code, drug enforcement, sentencing, parole and pardons, internal and homeland security, Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, prisons, criminal law enforcement,

The chair is Bobby Scott of Virginia and the ranking member is Louie Gohmert of Texas.

The Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law
The subcommittee has jurisdiction over:

immigration and naturalization, border security, admission of refugees, treaties, conventions and international agreements, claims against the United States, federal charters of incorporation, private immigration and claims bills, non-border enforcement,

The chair is Zoe Lofgren of California and the ranking member is Steve King of Iowa.

That's all for now. Next week will be the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a focus on the committee's role in judicial nominations and confirmations.

Crossposted on Daily Kos, Docudharma, and Congress Matters.

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